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t good enough. His own experience of poverty
on 20 October 2015
Keir Hardie was one of those Victorians for whom the status quo wasn;t good enough. His own experience of poverty, of powerful people (mostly men), uncaring pursuit of profit with little or now rewards for the grinding work and minimal wages of millions of labourers, of whom Hardie was one. This biography is by a self confessed admirer of Hardie, but one who knows the ins and outs of social welfare from its origins till today; and does so both as a professor of social policy and one whose own life has been lived in the service of people struggling to make ends meet, to build a life against the tilt of many disadvantages, and to live with dignity and a chance of flourishing.
Hardie's story is told, from his childhood hardhsips, to young years at work, then as a social reformer whose speeches could inspire cheering or jeering or worse, his role in organising and leading strikes for better, safer conditions in mining and a celebrated confrontation with Lord Overtoun about the slave conditions at the Rutherglen chemical works. Then his years in Parliament, his passionate support of women's suffrage, his visit to India and his expose of the methods and abuses of Empire, his life work of bringing Unions, Socialist groupings, the newly formed ILP and ex Liferal politicians into what eventually became a parliamentary Labour Party - these are all woven into a story of a man of passionate moral conviction. He was deeply Christian but of the more radical sort that thought the teaching of Jesus applied specifically and critically to the economic realities of late Victorian and early Edwardian Britain. He was also a superb public communication with working folk, with brilliant pamhpleteering skills as he took on the privileged elites at the top of the capitalist pyramid.
Holman's study is intended to redress the balance, and show that Hardie was a great man, not a mere political maverick. And this book succeeds in that aim. Hardie's passionate outspoken criticism of wealth built on low wages and dreadful housing, of inherited privilege and its political protections, and his compassion for poor labourers, destitute unemployed and all but abandoned elderly poor is a story told that is intended to fule fresh political and ethical opposition to injustice that is systemic and the valuing of human life on economic and financial scales.
An intriguing series of parallels with Jeremy Corbyn makes it even more interesting. Hardie was mocked and verbally abused for daring to come into Parliament dressed in workers' tweeds; he was not prepared to validate the class elitism of the monarchy and on numerous occasions was outspoken about the cost of the monarchy, the indifference of the royal family to the plight of workers, and the validation of the Czar by a royal visit seeking trade agreements; he was vehemently opposed to militarism and especially the recruiting of working class young people to fight in the interests of Empire economics abroad. It would be too far to say Corbyn has modelled his political style and actions on Hardie, but there is strong DNA evidence of a common ancestry of ideas.
Reading this story shows the vast distance that the modern Labour Party has travelled away from its social, ethical and ideological roots. In some ways it has had to adapt and develop, reshape and reinvent, in a rapidly changing world. But you are left with the question: If the blade of my spade wears out and I replace it, then the handle breaks and I replace it, do I still have the same spade - indeed, depending on what I replace the parts with, do I still have a spade at all? Reading a biography like this poses searching questions about the right of the contemporary Labour Party to claim that it stands with any security in this historic tradition of socialism on behalf of the whole society.
The five stars are for the book fulfilling its intention and for the readership intended. It is well researched, lucidly written, c\reful of the facts, honest in the openly stated standpoint of the author, and it does indeed redress the balance by demonstrating the clear connection between Hardie's Christianity, his socialism, and his compassion for humanity.